Lawyers, Locusts, and Rats (Oh My!): The Distracting Attack on Lawyers and Civil Justice
Cross-posted from TortDeform.Com:
I remember one cold December weeknight during a finals period in law school. I left the library and decided to treat myself to a cab because it was so frigid I could barely feel my fingers. I got into the taxi, not knowing that I was in for quite the cocktail-party story-worthy cab-ride.
As soon as I got in, the gentleman asked, “Law school, huh?” What clued you in, the back pack, the huge law school behind us, or my scowl? I remember thinking.
“Yes,” I shivered, trying to thaw my hands out so that I could get my cab fare out of my wallet.
“Heard any good lawyer jokes lately?” he asked. But before I could answer he had already begun his routine:
What do you call 1000 lawyers at the bottom of the Potomac River? Pollution.
Why is money green? Because lawyers pick it up before it is ripe…
After about fifteen such jokes, I was out of canned laughter. I mean, this man was on a roll. He was really laying it on thick. We pulled up to my place and I paid him. I remember feeling compelled to give him a bigger tip than I usually would, just to show that I wasn't a "greedy lawyer." Had I just taken a guilt trip or a trip home from the library?
As I was getting out of the cab he said, “Oh, no, you aren’t a lawyer yet... You didn’t stiff me!”
Another roar of laughter on his end...but I was too tired to humor him. I was ready to go to sleep.
Fast forward to yesterday. A Wall Street Journal law blog discussing lawyers’ negative public image generated some pretty lively discussion. It started with a cheesy joke comparing lawyers to rats, and then it discussed the PR crisis plaguing the profession. A common refrain among lawyers who work in the public's interest, representing clients who have been wronged and want nothing but proper redress for their injuries, is that they are frustrated with losing their case in the court of public opinion.
I don't know what the solution is, but I think our energies can be better spent focusing on the people whose lives are improved by a strong civil justice system, people whose interests have become submerged in the battle between lawyers and those who hate them.
For instance, this interesting blog discusses the unfortunate effects of successful lobbying for tort reform in Texas, the success of which has been largely based on vilifying lawyers. The blog opens with this gem-of-a first line: "Tort reformers, those who have worked to limit lawsuits against their own interests (like Bob Perry) pulled the biggest scam on consumers since the solar powered flashlight." That scam? Medical malpractice tort reform. The blogger, John Coby, reflects on how a defanged civil justice system has compromised accountability in the medical practice and medical malpractice law. It has also created perverse incentives for less scrupulous doctors to move in-state and get back to practice after having lost their licenses at home.
But we don't often read about that, or about the experiences of people who have been effectively shut out of the system because attorneys can't afford to take their case, or the people whose injuries are inadequately compensated due to damage caps. Instead, we read sensationalized stories about lawsuit anomalies, and of course, the lawyer bashing jokes.
Coby isn’t laughing at these jokes. He writes:
This is the beauty of the tort reform argument… [Its proponents] demonized the "greedy" trial lawyers and since the vast majority of consumers will never need the services of a trial lawyer they were an easy target. They were easy to blame for the ills of the judicial system.
If only Texas could be a lesson learned. One can hope that it will be for Wisconsin, and that state representative Frank Lasee's tort "reform" budget proposal won't fly. Lasee has actually proposed cutting funding to University of Wisconsin law school. The faulty logic behind such a proposal? It will reduce the number of lawyers working in state, which in turn will reduce so-called frivolous lawsuits. On his blog he compares lawyers to locusts, writing: "When a plague of locusts descends on your field, what do you do? Do you help them multiply? Subsidize them? That is UW system's policy."
In a news article, Lasee said: "We don't need more ambulance chasers. We don't need frivolous lawsuits. And we don't need attorneys making people's lives miserable when they go to family court for divorces." (Here's a more recent article) Of course, the alternative of going to court without an attorney could produce devastating outcomes, but I guess Lasee doesn't make that connection. Or maybe he just doesn't want us to.
Yes, Lasee's proposal is an attack on lawyers. Responding to challenges that his proposal is part of a personal vendetta against lawyers, Lasee even used the old "some of my best friends are lawyers" line. But more importantly, his proposal is covert tort reform--cloaked as "concern for taxpayers," it is really about attacking the civil justice system and those who fight to make it more accessible and effective.
So what to do about the image of lawyers as locusts, rats, ambulance chasers, and money pickers? Some groups have really focused on combatting anti-lawyer propaganda, but I think defending the civil justice system should be first priority. We (lawyers, social activists, consumers, bloggers, blog readers, taxpayers, etc.) should be focused on ensuring that people have access to a remedy when they are wronged and that wrongdoers are held accountable when they cause injury.
As for the lawyer bashing, we'll leave that to the PR guys.